Are men more courageous than women?

Posted by: Alex Linley, CAPP

To mark the UK release of his latest fascinating book, The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver, I caught up again with the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology”, long time friend and Capp collaborator, Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener. In this interview, we focused our attention on how courage manifests, and what might be different about it, in both women and entrepreneurs. See below for what Robert has to say about the findings from his research for The Courage Quotient:

AL: In your research on courage, did you find differences in the courage expressed by men and women?

RBD: I think that most people tend to believe that courage – at least stereotypically- is largely the domain of men. Fables, myths and modern movies all favour a fairly macho action-hero style of bravery. But movies such as Erin Brokovich, about a determined whistleblower, suggests that there is a place at the table for women as well. While researching The Courage Quotient I found a number of studies that suggest that women perform bravery as well as – and sometimes better than – their male counterparts. For instance, women are more likely to donate organs and are more likely to serve in risky overseas volunteer positions. It may be that men are placed more frequently in positions that require physical bravery – indeed, men overwhelmingly outnumber women in the military, police forces and in fire departments – but women do well with moral and social forms of bravery. [AL notes: We know from our work with the Fire Service that part of this difference is a result of different physical requirements in the role, which can be difficult, but not impossible, to surmount.]

AL: Why do you think this is? What impact does this have on male and female stereotypes in society do you think?

RBD: Men, because of their larger average size and access to testosterone, have long been at the centre of action especially when that action has been physical. In addition, wars and other physical feats tend to make for good narratives, so stories ranging from epic poems to modern movies tend to lionize the stereotypical form of male bravery. We tend to overlook that women have long been brave, but that women’s bravery has historically been outside of the battlefield. Women have spoken up as courageous advocates and often been the defenders of values. You see modern examples ranging from Benazir Bhutto to Mother Theresa to Maria Montessori. But it is more common that we overlook female forms of bravery because either 1) we do not agree with the values they espouse, or 2) their actions are often less “flashy” than those on the battlefield; taking the form of discussion, passing laws, and pioneering new fields.

AL: What about courage in organisations? Do you think that women need to use courage differently to men in order to succeed in organisational leadership?

RBD: I think that women – especially those in leadership – need to start thinking about themselves as courageous. I am not sure that it matters that their courage is similar to or different from male courage. What I really think matters is that female leaders truly accept the mantle of bravery. In many ways, women have an additional burden in the workplace. It is no secret that women shoulder a disproportionate amount of household and childcare responsibilities, that women are more likely to take time off following childbirth and that women in leadership work against the grain of a traditionally male-centric position. This means, in many ways, that women have to be able to advocate for themselves, speak boldly, and take risks. They will be scrutinized differently and are more prone to have life outside of work interfere with work Read More Here. At every turn, I see potential for women leaders to bring bravery to the table.

AL: How about courage and entrepreneurship? Did you find that entrepreneurs demonstrate a particular type of courage?

RBD: I am particularly fascinated by entrepreneurship. I have a hunch that those who have an entrepreneurial spirit are actually genetically wired a bit different and are more prone to be extroverted and risk taking. To make the leap into starting up a business, I believe that people also have to be possessed of a certain degree of optimism and self-confidence. It is an interesting case where multiple strengths might converge to create a new meta-strength (let’s just label it “entrepreneurialism”). I think we can learn much from small business owners and those who jump from start-up to start-up. They likely have a very high tolerance for uncertainty and a very high level of confidence that they can handle new situations and even small mistakes and failures. I think the entrepreneurial mindset is a terrific test case for courage.

AL: Based on your findings, do you think anyone can develop the courage to be an entrepreneur?

RBD: I would like to be able to say “yes, anyone can develop courage.” Even the sub-title of my book is “How science can make you braver.” I do believe that – that people have the ability to overcome personal limitations and learn skills around emotion management and other techniques that can make one braver. I might stop short at claiming we can turn someone into an entrepreneur though. Entrepreneurs happen to have a values-based mission that makes taking a risk seem worthwhile. They tend to have an optimistic disposition such that they believe that their idea will become a success. Finally, they have a huge tolerance for uncertainty and can thrive in an anxious state that causes other people to freeze up. Rather than trying to radically transform someone into an entrepreneur I would recommend the strengths strategy that I have often heard from Capp: collaboration and complementary strengths partnerships. If a person is weak in one area, I believe they can counteract this weakness by collaborating with someone for whom it is a natural strength. That is, generally speaking, a good message about courage. Courage need not be an individual phenomenon. We tend to be a little braver and a little less inhibited when we are in groups and when we get support.

AL: Finally, a big question for us to conclude with, what would you like to see people achieve with courage in the 21st century?

RBD: I love this question! I think of courage as being the shortest route to the good life. I think a full and engaged life includes risks and even occasional small failures. In the coming years we will collectively be faced with a number of challenges related to the environment, the structure of capitalism, and ethnic, religious and political conflicts. I believe that it is courage that allows individuals, groups and communities to stand up and demand change, to work for reform, and to make the big changes. I think the courageous leaders of successful movements, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., are terrific examples of how we have to be willing to take personal risks to make worthwhile change.